How the Dark Shadows Experiment Began to Begin.
I think I wrote this before I started this website. Anyway, these were my initial reactions to the DS trailer, and it’s a much better read than I recalled.
So, I was speaking with a moron regarding DARK SHADOWS about twenty five years ago, and found myself in the all-too-familiar position of defending the show. The nimrod compared the difficulties in promoting the franchise to the struggles faced by those who worked in favor of DR. WHO. Keep in mind, this was late 1980’s. This was around the Colin Baker/Sylvester McCoy years. Now, I’ll never know if he’s totally right, because I couldn’t sit through an entire DR. WHO episode. But I saw some of his points.
Glacial pacing. Wobbly sets. Questionable make-up and special effects. Arcane dialogue tied to years of previous plot lines. My friend was clearly an ignoramus.
He was also right.
To advocate DARK SHADOWS is a real Kobayashi Maru. You don’t really jump in with both feet and love it from the first episode. If someone does, they are a magical being and must be idolized. No, with DARK SHADOWS, you have to get used to it. Back in the days of syndication, this was easy. There were only so many things on, and you just kinda threw it on in the background while you did two or three other things. You’d half pay attention. Sometimes to enjoy the boom mikes and wobbly gravestones. Sometimes to chuckle at the abrupt insertion of melodramatic music. And it was only a half-hour. Quickly, you understood that nothing of real substance was probably going to happen. So you just went along for the ride while also doing homework or reading comics or whatever.
And after a while, you just grew to like it. Really. You lovingly accepted the technical limitations and simultaneously realized that you, well, kinda liked the characters. Their arcs and turns were really handled quite deftly by a pretty august cast. Underneath, there were identifiable weaknesses and moments of self-discovery. Because it dealt with issues of death, responsibility, and love of a vast scale, over centuries, the characters had something grand about them that accumulated over the many, many episodes. And because you were with them for a half-hour a day, they had the time to have a familiarity and reliability that made them a bit more, well, personable than TV characters you’d see for only an hour a week. It became an odd mix of the epic and the approachably mundane. This led to the show’s lovable hilarity and actual pathos. And then the wobbly tombstones just vanished in your eyes and you were left in Collinsport. Which is what actually mattered.
Only in hindsight is all of this clear. And because it’s clear, I think it’s possible to distill it and tell a great story in two hours. The original movie is fun, but Barnabas is the bad guy. That’s not really the whole story.
For a long time, I can only tell you that *this* fan of DARK SHADOWS looked forward to some kind of revival of the franchise that would successfully communicate its best qualities. The 1991 TV series was okay, but a bit too stoic. No, a good movie could do this, um, “time efficiently.” It would be the easiest way for the Rice fans and Whedon fans and Meyer fans (Stephanie, not Russ or Nicholas) to be presented with the Rosetta stone.
If done correctly, there was a chance… just a faint chance… that they’d walk away and say, “Ah, so *that’s* why you were such a fan. I get it. Maybe I need to give it another look. Even if I won’t go that far, I still get the gist.”
It may be hard to imagine, but let’s come back around to DR. WHO. Look at the status of it today. From what I hear, it’s intelligently handled in a way that communicates the essence of the mythos without the pacing and technical flaws that made the older WHO so hard to quickly access.
Most importantly, in doing so, it seems to have established that there actually *is* something of dramatic worth to the characters and their universe that is not bound up in the lovable limits of the old show.
People often do terrible jobs of translating old franchises into a new era. Sometimes they take it so seriously, it becomes leaden. LOST IN SPACE, anyone? I would have killed for a fruity Dr. Smith and some pastel velour. (But when don’t I?) Or Jackson’s KING KONG, so lugubriously reverent that it collapsed under its own heft.
But when filmmakers get it right, they knock it out of the park. Batman. A lost cause. Depending on the fan, since 1966 or (in my case) 1989 or (for most Batfans) 1997. But along comes Christopher Nolan to straighten everything out and make it smart, witty, human, eloquent, balanced, meaningful, and vaguely plausible. Consider JJ Abrams and STAR TREK. Say what you will, it wasn’t a comedy. And it got people excited about these characters again… because the characters *are* the franchise. Around the same time, a similar goose was given to the Bond series.
Speaking of STAR TREK, I remember how WRATH OF KHAN was so surprising because in under two hours it did more to literately and movingly share the essence of the characters (even if people were unfamiliar with the franchise) than (very) arguably happened over 79 episodes. Again, that’s the benefit of hindsight. So, yes, you can make grappa out of wine.
And, of course, we see what happened with BATTLESTAR GALACTICA, where Ron Moore, in a paraphrase of Harlan Ellison‘s words, “took one of the worst TV series of all time and made it one of the best.”
Oh, and I’m forgetting Richard Donner‘s dignified yet witty distillation of the Superman mythos into one of the great films of the Seventies. Will wonders never cease?
So, it’s not like these things can’t happen. And if you want to parody something, then parody it with love. Base the parody in what is intrinsically amusing about the franchise in the first place. This is what Lorenzo Semple accomplished several times. It’s the good kind of camp, which Christopher Isherwood said (and I’m paraphrasing) is not making fun of something, but rather making fun *out* of something you love. That’s what was accomplished with such elan in THE BRADY BUNCH MOVIE.
For me, DARK SHADOWS is funny because few problems cannot be solved with seances. Or because the characters are hilariously oblivious to the obvious truths that surround them. Or — and let’s see if this is universal enough — they keep making the same mistakes over and over with a weird optimism, somehow forgetting that it never works out.
What I’m trying to get at is that the DARK SHADOWS trailer sucks.
You know, I was kind of with it until I saw the movie’s name. That was an utterly surreal moment. Like a weird dream I’d joke about the next day. And then I thought, “Jeez. This is it. *This* is the DARK SHADOWS movie. Whether it’s a hit or a flop, now I have to punch my way through *this* garbage as well as the surface-level limitations of the original series in my role as a loyal, Collinsport ambassador. I’m going to have to deal with ill-informed know-it-alls who’ll proclaim in their profound ignorance, “Well, with a series that bad, what else could they do with it?”
The answer is, “A lot.”
Ask the many writers who’ve been ripping it off for decades.